NYC
11/29/2010 10:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cathie Black's Appointment Faces Legal Battles

MANHATTAN -- Three separate groups are preparing to sue if Cathie Black is granted a waiver to become the city's next schools chancellor, threatening to delay an already contentious battle over Mayor Michael Bloomberg's pick.

The groups, consisting of state lawmakers, city lawmakers and civil rights activists, say the deal struck between Bloomberg and State Education Commissioner David Steiner to allow the magazine executive to take charge violates the law.

Steiner is expected to issue the waiver Black needs on Monday, after Bloomberg conceded last week by agreeing to appoint DOE veteran Shael Polakow-Suransky to serve as Black's advisor and second-in-command.

Black needs the waiver from the state because she lacks the schools experience legally required for the job.

All three groups have readied lawyers who are awaiting Steiner's decision. But experts disagree on whether they can actually make a case.

Schools chancellors must be certified superintendents with graduate training as well as at least three years of teaching experience, according to state law. The law allows for waivers to be granted to "exceptionally qualified persons" who do not satisfy those conditions "but whose exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent of such requirements."

City Councilman Charles Barron said there's no evidence that Black has the equivalent training that would qualify her for the exemption.

"The waiver is supposed to be a process for candidates who have some of the criteria but fall short on maybe one," said Barron, who plans to hold a meeting with lawyers Monday to decide whether to file a temporary restraining order preventing Black from taking office as well as additional legal action.

"It's not just about being angry. ... It's about doing something about it," he said.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries said the law also clearly lays out that the waiver must be based on Black's professional credentials, and not on someone else's.

"The law does not permit the Commissioner to grant a waiver based on the professional training and experience of someone other than the applicant," said Jeffries, who is in talks with lawyers and could file a separate lawsuit along with State Sen. Eric Adams.

City University education professor and attorney David Bloomfield said the best legal course will likely depend on how Steiner writes his decision, but that both Barron and Jeffries raise key concerns.

"I think they have a strong case," he said.

Another potential case could be made against the city for violating federal equal employment opportunity requirements because no public search was conducted for a candidate, Bloomfield said.

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, which began meeting with lawyers Saturday, declined to provide specific about how his organization plans to pursue legal action, but said he was "encouraged" by what he'd heard.

But not everyone thinks a lawsuit is imminent.

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and expert in education, said that he strongly disagreed with Steiner's decision, but doubted any laws had been broken.

"I think it was a mistake. I think he caved in. But he has a right to," Sol said. "The waiver is pretty much at the waiverer's discretion."

The State Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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